I came out of the closet in Poland, in Polish. Or, rather, I joined a vibrant community, which in 2006 was still taking place very much within the closet, behind closed doors—a time when gay bars literally had hidden doors and secret passcodes. My beautiful friends compiled for me a handwritten dictionary with all the lines I would need for podrywania [pick up] and tried to get me to feel comfortable uttering the statement, “jestem lesbijką.” While I was overjoyed with my new sense of freedom and belonging, with my growing mastery of lesbian life and the Polish language, I couldn’t quite wrap my tongue/head/heart around the statement, “I am a lesbian.”
It wasn’t until years later, after I built my own (very) international queer life spanning San Francisco, New York, Berlin, and Tel Aviv, partnering with a transman and a transwoman, and hooking up with people of many other genders, that the term “lesbian” finally felt like it could possibly be mine. Ironically this was the moment when I knew the term to be most contested; my aging, separatist, lesbian comrades fighting to keep the label alive would probably not accept my membership, considering my erotic practices (a lesson I learned when participating in the conference/reunion, “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: 1970s Lesbian Lives” at CUNY in 2010). My contemporary queer comrades may well take offense at a term so laden with essentialist and exclusionary baggage. As I searched for myself and my place, it was scary to make linguistic choices that would risk the tenuous bonds I was still building (although I certainly took pleasure in the potential of disturbing cis-hetero-normative patriarchy, a goal shared by aging lesbians and younger queers alike).
Luckily, I discovered a language in which I could bridge my different communities, a language in which I found myself using the word, which suddenly felt available, new and subversive, lezbianke. The language was Yiddish, once the most widely spoken Jewish language across Eastern Europe, but nearly decimated by Nazism, Stalinism, Zionism, and overall assimilation, and today spoken primarily by ultra-religious Jews. Being a century too late for the flourishing of modern Yiddish culture in the interwar period, and not coming from a contemporary Yiddish-speaking religious community, I learned the word from a dictionary-poem published by the bilingual, Yiddish-English, radical lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz, “Etlekhe verter oyf mama loshn” [A Few Words in the Mother Tongue]. In it, she writes:
Di lezbianke the one with a roommate though we never used the word
Imitating a dictionary, Klepfisz gives us the Yiddish word, recognizable to non-Yiddish speakers (especially since Klepfisz writes her Yiddish in the Latin alphabet rather than the Hebrew alphabet in which it is usually written). Recognizing the word, it needs no translation, and still Klepfisz offers her gloss, “the one with a roommate” which instead of translation acts as a silencing euphemism, both revealing and veiling the lezbianke, a word Klepfisz admits “we never used.” Indeed, it is possible that Klepfisz is the first one to use this word in Yiddish, or at least the first to put this word to writing.
Searching digitally in the National Yiddish Book Center, I have found descriptive variations of lezbish acts and feelings, but no trace of the identity lezbianke. The word likely crossed over to Yiddish by way of German, where it was used first in sexological discourses, after coming from Ancient Greek and referring back to the poet Sappho and the Isle of Lesbos. For Klepfisz it likely came from the emergent US lesbian movement of which she was an active part. When I found the word in her poem, it allowed me to connect back to that movement and its historical moment in the 1970s, and even further back to the original moment of flourishing Yiddish poetry in interwar Poland, New York, and beyond.
More than a feeling of linguistic certainty and stability, the philological itinerary of lezbianke offered me imaginative possibilities, fantasies of uncharted trails as well as communal belonging. Inheriting a word that never quite existed, but that still connected me back to a rich legacy, felt strangely accurate. As in all the languages that are part of my life, I can only embrace the identities that words imply as long as they include the complexities and contradictions that are inherently part of those identities. And here Yiddish had one final word to offer me, a word which more than any other label feels complexly perfect:
This word is a stunning example of Yiddish’s own hybrid nature, the very nature that caused it to be derogatorily labeled as jargon—as less than a full, pure, or normative (i.e queer) language. It is based on the loshn-koydesh, the (mainly) Hebrew sacred tongue. If lezbianke came from the Germanic elements of Yiddish, further (and superfluously) feminized by the Polish feminine suffix “ka” (which becomes “ke” in Yiddish), mishkev-zokhernitse is framed with the Slavic feminine suffix “nitse,” which is not superfluous at all considering that the noun to which it is attached is distinctly masculine (mishkev-zokhernik) not just due to the suffix “nik,” but also based on its origin.
Mishkev-zokhernik comes from the Biblical injunction against men having sex with men, in Leviticus 20:13. Mishkev-zokher is the act of laying with men, and the mishkev-zokhernik is the one who lays with men. Feminizing the term could cancel out the injunction, for a woman is the one who is “supposed” to enact this laying with men, and yet by building on the injunction, the message is clear: the word mishkev-zokhernitse names the female transgression. This is indeed an oxymoronic construction, where the mishkev-zokhernitse becomes both a sex and gender transgressor, whose gender, desires, and actions constantly shift between—neither male nor female, in a constant state of shattering grammar.
In this linguistic complexity, I recognize my erotic proclivities, the queerness of my gender and that of my partners, and a destabilization of any potential monolithic/monolingual stability. The word tells me that no matter who I sleep with, I belong to the ones transgressing heteronormativity. Rather than the anxiety induced by lesbian belonging, to be a mishkev-zokhernitse opens up infinite possibilities for queer transgression and belonging.